Chris Else is a solicitor with high ambitions for his Midland practice – but he is also a man who has not forgotten his roots. He talks about his career and his plans for his business with John Duckers.
Chris Else went into law because he thought it would give him a decent living … and he was right.
But it was also a way of escaping the alternative – some sort of unskilled job in the then declining coal mining community of Ilkeston in Derbyshire.
Aged 48, he has no regrets over the decision.
Today he is the driving force behind the Birmingham and Burton-on-Trent-based Else Solicitors, running the firm in partnership with long-time friend Andrew Hickman.
Launched more or less from scratch five years ago it now has 35 staff and a turnover of £1.6 million.
The ambition is to get it to the 100-150 size in the next five years.
Mr Else’s CV describes him as “a proactive no-nonsense commercial lawyer”, and that is pretty much on the button.
“I have a fairly single-minded approach,” he admits.
So once he had decided to go into the law all doubts were banished. “I set my mind on doing it.”
But how did he decide that this was a career he could make something of? After all, it wasn’t as if there was a history of law in the family.
His father was the finance director of a builder’s merchants in Ilkeston. His mother was a housewife.
One grandfather was a coal merchant and other worked at the Stanton and Staveley ironworks, which at its height employed around 12,500 people, ultimately becoming part of British Steel.
“I decided I wanted to do law from around the age of 13 or 14,” said Mr Else.
It was a logical decision, he explains.
“I was not very good at maths or sciences so the arts seemed to be a better educational path. Law was a practical way of earning a reasonable living.”
He wanted something with an end product rather than a degree with no clear job at its conclusion.
The family were supportive.
“They didn’t want me in an unskilled job in Ilkeston.
“It was quite a rough town. If you stood in the marketplace on a Friday night speaking in a Brummie accent you wouldn’t last long.”
You don’t escape your roots and he still has solidarity with the area.
Indeed he admits his sympathies were with the miners in the defining 1984/85 strike in which then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher fought NUM leader Arthur Scargill to control the future direction of the country.
“Scargill was made out to be the devil – there was huge criticism from the media. But he was only representing the interests of the ordinary working people.
“They all had families to keep. Coal mining is a hard and demanding job. Health and safety was not always a priority. How many miners live three score years and ten?
“You can see why the local community stood behind the miners.”
Mind you, he accepts that times have moved on, with a lot more legislation in place to protect employees and more opportunity for all.
Mr Else, having passed the 11+ exam, went to Henry Mellish Grammar School in Nottingham.
This had its advantages and disadvantages.
Let’s begin with the disadvantages.
For a start you had to play rugby and young Else preferred football.
Still does – he is for his sins a big Derby County fan.
To say they didn’t do too well in the Premier League last year is to be kind, and Mr Else has clearly taken more than his fair share of ribbing.
So we revel instead in the glory days of 1971/72 and 1974/75 when Derby won the old First Division, first under Brian Clough and then Dave Mackay.
Still, there is some compensation for being relegated to the Championship – Derby are now in the same league as the despised Nottingham Forest.
“So that guarantees us at least two victories,” he quips.
The upside to school was that he achieved the requisite O and A-levels to get him to the University of East Anglia in Norwich to study law.
This was in the years 1979 to 1981 – when they actually paid you to go there rather than it costing you a fortune – and universities were as much somewhere to have a good time at, perhaps more properly described as character forming, as they were centres of learning.
The Else priorities had always been “hard work and grafting” – strong family values.
But university was an eye-opener.
“Norwich was a nice place to be – near the coast and with some excellent real ales. I got a good social degree – a 2:2.”
From there it was on to Chester Law School and then a first job, articled to Walter Scott & Ross, an Ilkeston law firm.
“The first thing my principal said to me was that when he was an articled clerk in the 1940s he had to pay £4,000 a year for the privilege.”
Those days had gone but WS&R didn’t think much about having to pay wet-behind-the-ears young graduates.
He started on £3,125.
You got involved in just about anything – from criminal and the Dangerous Dogs Act claims to corporate and commercial litigation.
After four years and by then two years post qualified, he realised he was becoming “a jack of all trades and a master of none”.
The final straw” was on the same day as having to deal with a dangerous dogs claim a letter arrived demanding that an irate individual’s “back passage” should not be interfered with any more – not quite what it might seem, at the time Ilkeston had a lot of terraced houses with rear entrances.
So it was time to move on. He applied for and secured a job with Needham & James in Birmingham.
That was 1987 and it was an interesting introduction.
“On my first day I was taken to the pub at lunchtime by my now partner Andrew Hickman and others. Four pints later we went back to work. This was my introduction to the Birmingham culture of drinking at lunchtime.”
Something that is somewhat frowned on today though at that time it was how the deals were done and the networking developed.
Else Solicitors, like some significant others in Birmingham used to be, still believes in a work hard/play hard philosophy.
Indeed Mr Else is backing the Longer Lunch campaign of The Birmingham Post although he suggests it be modified to Bring Back Bigger Fees And Longer Lunches.
N&J work involved some big clients – Midland Bank, now part of HSBC; insurance group Allied Dunbar; leading construction and engineering companies.
Needhams was based in both Birmingham and Stratford-upon-Avon and the firm’s guru was Keith James.
He was visionary for his time – for example, realising that embracing IT would transform law firms.
He also had a straightforward approach to building a law firm – you start off with a debt recovery department and that gets you exposure to finance directors and finance controllers of a wide range of companies, from plcs to SMEs.
Those contacts allow you gradually to win work in more specialist areas.
So, N&J was into the likes of construction, insolvency, banking litigation, employment and corporate.
When Mr Else was approached to launch a commercial arm to criminal law firm Smith Partnership, of Derby, he took with him the James blueprint.
It went well for more than a decade – 1989 to 2003.
The commercial side expanded but Mr Else kept up his Birmingham contacts, buying in specialist help where Smith needed it.
Indeed it could be argued he got the timing right – DLA moved in to take over much of N&J, some N&J players moved to Gateley Wareing and other law firms, N&J retrenched to Stratford and has subsequently sought to build itself back in Birmingham.
Eventually Mr Else began to get frustrated heading a department which was an adjunct to the much better known criminal side, and decided to launch on his own.
Else Solicitors was born on November 11, 2003.
The “office” was the conservatory at his home at Tattenhill Common, Burton-on-Trent.
The James plan for success was pulled out of the bag and Mr Else threw himself into debt recovery, quickly becoming busy.
Wasn’t it a brave decision to go on your own? There must have been doubts?
“I am single-minded and quite thick skinned,” he remarks. “It does help.”
The decision to get an office in Burton – the firm is now based on the Centrum 100 Business Park – came as Chris’s long-suffering wife and co-founder of the business, typed the 200th letter on behalf of a finance company addressed to a none-too salubrious part of Nottingham.
It dawned that it wouldn’t take much for a Mr Angry of Nottingham to drive down to the Else home and cause a scene or worse.
He recruited some staff and a couple of solicitors – even though sufficient work to justify the move had still to come through the doors – and Else Solicitors has not looked back.
Gradually more specialists were taken on and the firm now extends into banking and business recovery, commercial contracts and services, construction and engineering, corporate, dispute resolution, employment, family and property.
Subsequently, in 2004/2005 there were discussions about opening a base in Birmingham. But that remained a “pipedream” until Mr Hickman, an expert in construction services and then working for Gateley Wareing, indicated he was keen to join.
Another Ilkestonian, insolvency specialist Peter Brewer was enticed away from Nottingham firm Fraser Brown, and he set up the bridgehead in January 2006, trading from the Chamber of Commerce in Birmingham.
Mr Else said: “Peter spent 18 months getting work, wining and dining, and raising the profile of the firm in the city. We successfully managed, however, to stay out of the nearby Spearmint Rhino.”
And soon there were 12 staff working out of Aspect Court in Temple Row.
Mates from Needham days arrived – Mr Hickman, Paul Taylor on the residential property side, and matrimonial expert Michael Vale.
With his Gateley connections Mr Hickman helped bring in John Beckett, commercial property and Clair Ruskin-Brown, commercial.
Having invested in people and technology, including a £100,000 online debt recovery service, the aim is to build a strong medium sized firm in the Midlands.
And he believes that can be done. “If you help other people to get to where they want to be they will help you to get to where you need to be.
“If we construct this right we can easily be a strong presence in Birmingham and the Midlands.”
Already contacts have been established in Europe, and work picked up in Germany and Holland.
Mr Else says he and Mr Hickman complement each other. “I am in your face and fairly direct. He is more circumspect.”
Not much time then to indulge in hobbies.
He enjoys hill walking – the Yorkshire Moors, Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons – and has achieved the Three Peaks Challenge of Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon all in 24 hours.
And he lists fine food and wine, and beer, as other interests. Pasta di Piazza in St Paul’s Square is a favourite.
So raise a glass to Else Solicitors.